Workers, Traders and Managers

The women of Tafahna al Ashraf, a Muslim village in the Egyptian delta, cultivate the land. Women are also merchants, artisans, agricultural laborers, teachers, and clerks. Some women pursue these endeavors in response to hard times, while others take advantage of opportunities that have appeared over the past three decades. In all cases, women's work shows that development planners must recognize women's place in village economic life.

Egyptian social scientist Sohair Mehenna and I first visited Tafahna in 1961 and 1962. At that time, its 2,200 people relied mainly on agriculture. it was a small community by Egyptian standards, and few people either owned or rented enough land to support their families. Many had no land. Household incomes came from combining several sources: cultivating owned and rented land, animal husbandry, entrepreneurial activities, and wage labor.

Similar conditions in much of Egypt had stimulated the Agrarian Reform Laws enacted between 1952 and 1962 by a socialist-oriented government. In part because of these laws, Tafahna prospered in the 1970s. A ceiling on land rent of seven times the tax rate, a reclamation-resettlement project, and irrigation water from expanding the High Aswan Dam all contributed to Tafahna's improving economy. At the same time, prices for farm products rose as the Egyptian economy grew after 1973.

By the mid-1970s, Tafahna men had answered the rising demand for food with a technological and economic innovation by mass producing chickens for meat. They took this step upon the advice of a woman in the agricultural ministry who was the daughter-in-law of a Tafahna leader. In addition, as the dam made water more available, the villagers began cultivating rice, and animal husbandry increased as well. In other words, development entailed local responses to changing national conditions.

Development as it actually occurs in communities like Tafahna also illustrates that a woman's role in the economy complements that of men. Tafahna women contribute indirectly, and sometimes directly, to development when smallholders join richer men investing in mass producing chickens. Moreover, women's funds help husbands with no or little land buy some property.

The business enterprises of Tafahna women have also grown in reaction to national demand. Thus, women who are merchants, milk processors, owners of animals, household managers, and workers have succeeded when they have opportunities to gather funds and invest.

Yet the lessons of the past may not have been learned. During summer 1992, Egypt passed a law that may threaten the survival strategies of smallholders, including the people of Tafahna. According to the Economist, the law removes the last vestiges of a 1960s socialist policy that redistributed some wealth. It triples the ceiling on land rent to 22 times the tax rate. The law seems to strike at the successful strategy of working owned and rented land that Tafahna people used to improve their lives.

How will villagers react? Will they be able to continue to innovate and maintain an economic base that expresses the values of their society while preparing their children for new careers?


Village women's long-established roles in production are one basis for their contributions to development. They own and cultivate land and own and care for cattle. Most women are unpaid workers on land their families own or rent; a few rich women own land that is worked by tenants; poor women are paid laborers on the land of other villagers or estate owners. Women help care for cattle they or other members of their households own. Men, who also own more cattle than women, also own most village land. But only women raise household poultry, primarily for eggs to sell.

Afaf, one of the first women we met in Tafahna, told us how she invested in cattle with her husband. Soon after she married, her must older husband, the prosperous owner of about six acres of land, tried to convince her to sell her wedding jewelry and invest the money with him in cattle. Her mother-in-law, who lived with them, also urged her to do so. "I did this," says Afaf, "but my mother would not speak to me afterwards" - a woman should keep her wedding jewelry as a safeguard in case of divorce. Instead, Afaf and her husband signed an agreement that each owned specific shares in the cattle and that she "will have the money from the milk and butter to use as the she places."

Fifteen years later, Afaf and her husband continue to raise cattle. She sold the dairy products to a local merchant, and her husband had become a cattle merchant. Because they were well-to-do, Afaf never worked in the fields, and they hired other village women to plant and harvest their crops.

Less prosperous neighboring women worked regularly in the fields. An old man, his wife, their sons, and the sons' wives lived next door. The old mother organized the women's work so that one young wife worked in the fields one week, and the other the next, alternating field and household work. Since they owned land and rented, it wasn't necessary for the younger women to also work for wages.

As a result of the policies of the '60s, fewer women work in the fields. In 1962, 19 percent of Tafahna women worked for wages in agriculture; only 4 percent did in 1978. For teenage girls, the drop was from 62 percent to 20 percent, reflecting Tafahna's prosperity in 1978 and better educational opportunities. The proportion of wives doing unpaid farm work was cut in half to 25 percent.

As the number of people owning land rose, more women began tending animals for both household use and the market. While 37 percent of the women were involved in cattle care in 1962, two-thirds were in 1978. Women made butter or cheese from the milk or stored it for sale to merchants. In 1962, 71 percent of Tafahna women had poultry or small animals; by 1978, 92 percent did, contributing substantially to their families' income.

Change in production in Tafahna derived from change in Egypt as a whole. National demand pushed the prices of milk, milk products, and meat up rapidly after 1973. Eggs sold for about five times as much in 1978 as in 1961. By 1978, eggs were more profitable than wage labor: five eggs sold for the wages of a woman's day of farm work.

Women's work in production in Tafahna contributed to the community's propriety, as some of their income was invested in production and some went for consumption. Except for two women who invested in poultry mass production, women's work remained the same. However, the value of their products increased, so they had more to contribute to family goals.


When women work in production, they are maintaining expected roles in the village, roles for which they have been trained all their lives. Some women are important in distributing local products, and their earnings and experience enable them to contribute to development. A few women become merchants, usually from need, although some like the work, and all develop trading skills. The number of women traders increased between 1961 and 1978, again based on the demand for milk, butter, cheese, and eggs. Ten women were merchants or peddlers in 1978, compared to four in 1962.

In 1961 Laila was a young woman, recently remarried after divorcing a man from a leading family. She had forfeited her daughter and marriage furniture to get the divorce because, she says, the man and his family worked her too hard, fed her too little, and otherwise mistreated her. Her second husband took care of her, giving her money to buy what she wanted and "pulling the cover over her at night when it slipped off."

By 1978, Laila's second husband had died after a long illness that forced her to borrow to pay for medicines and physicians. Later, Laila married again, also to a small land owner. Shortly before this marriage, Laila's brothers urged her to become a local agent in the milk business. She would buy milk from other women, separate the cream, and sell both to a local factory. Laila sold a water buffalo and grain her second husband had left her and bought a milk separator, paying 60 Egyptian pounds for the machine (about $80 in 1978).

Laila had the business for 11 years by 1978. "[I] get milk from whoever passes by," she says. "If they like the price, I take the milk. If they don't, they go somewhere else." To get the money for her business, Laila explains, "I rent out the land, and I get the rent in advance. I take the money and buy milk from people." Laila earned about $5 net a month from her business, which was worth about $225.

In 1978, Laila was overworked. She had three small sons by her third husband and two daughters by her second. By 1986, however, when Mehenna and I last spoke with Laila, she was still in business, but her children required less care, and her life had eased as her profits rose. Her enterprise enabled her to live comfortably. She also hoped to use some income to educate her daughter, a goal she didn't achieve, we learned on our last visit to Tafahna.

Habiba represents another category of women who shift dairy goods to outside markets. These are the merchants of cheese and clarified butter (samn). Their business is more profitable than unprocessed milk but requires much more travel, largely excluding women with small children. In 1978, Habiba had been a samn and cheese merchant for 10 years. She had begun the business, she says, "to help her husband bring up the children." A prosperous farmer, he and their sons cultivated and raised cattle.

Habiba bought butter and cheese from women at market days in Tafahna and nearby villages, taking in about 44 pounds of butter and 18 pounds on cheese each week. On Thursday, she took a bus to cairo to sell cheese and samn in the market there, earning about a fourth of an Egyptian pound per pound of samn and slightly more on cheese. Habiba saved her profits for her sons' marriages. She and her husband didn't educate their children and married their daughter to a smallholder, while the sons continue to cultivate the land.

In Habiba's case, Egypt's demand for dairy goods helps maintain small farming and a traditional village way of life. Umm Mahmoud, the wife of a baker, also sells butter and cheese but has used her business to prepare her children for different lives.

When Umm Mahmoud's father died, she used the rent from her inherited half acre to start selling flour, vegetables, eggs, butter, and other items in Tafahna, nearby villages, and the district capital. She put her business profits into furnishing her house and educating her children. By 1978, her oldest son had graduated from law school, her next son was an engineering student, and her youngest boy was in preparatory school. She hadn't educated two daughters, one of whom had married, but the other two were in primary school.

Educating children was a new use that women in 1978 had found for their funds. By the late 1970s, eight young women in Tafahna were secretaries, clerks, teachers, or nurses. Such investments may not contributed directly to a new enterprise in the local economy, yet Umm Mahmoud's support for her children's education does represent an investment in an alternative view of rural development.


The women of Tafahna are not unusual. Throughout northern Egypt, women are merchants and peddlers in markets, and similar patterns of women's work in agriculture and animal husbandry occur in other villages of smallholders.

Tafahna's story indicates how economic development could build on the ways that women organize work and respond to opportunity. In Tafahna, the success of housewives and small merchants depends on the existence of a market for dairy products and eggs, and development projects here needn't be concerned with whether women would take initiatives in such areas. Rather, women will respond if development taps into women's knowledge about processing farm goods, raising chickens, marketing, or managing money, and if planners supply information about the choices that are available.

The connection between ongoing local development and external policy demonstrates the need to attend to women's economic activities, whether visible - as when they trade in markets - or almost invisible, as when they process dairy products, cultivate the land, or own a few hens. Yet when I returned to the United States from Tafahna in 1979, I was astonished to read that World Bank development plans for Egyptian development proposed reducing the number of cattle, assuming that feeding cows consumed farm products inefficiently. Fortunately, the policy wasn't put into effect. Reducing animal husbandry would have hurt Tafahna women severely. It would have cut their income, limited their place in the village economy, and diminished their contributions to the well being of their families.

At the national and international levels, planners have often known little about what happens in communities. Looking at women's ordinary lives may change ideas about how development relates to tradition, culture, and women's economic roles. Understanding such links is especially significant for Muslim communities like Tafahna, where women aren't as house-bound as many Westerners think. In this village, women's active economic life contributes to both production and distribution, as well as playing an important part in Tafahna's systems of saving and allocating the funds necessary for development.

Tafahna women prove that cultural constraints don't stop their entry into the economy. Only Tafahna's richest wives practice the seclusion associated with Islam. Other women visit neighbors, go to markets, and cultivate the fields, conducting business through their networks of women. They express their ideas about propriety by working in family groups or in groups of women only, although many activities of a married woman, especially her comings and goings, do require her husband's permission. Similarly, Muslim law means that husband and wife don't share property, yet a woman can own property herself.

Whether the freedom of movement Tafahna women exercise will fade with the renewed preaching of Islam in some parts of rural Egypt remains an open question. In parts of the Middle East, improved economic conditions appear to lead to more seclusion as women choose to stay home rather than work hard outside the house. Yet even if women's work may seem invisible or if women don't overtly challenge cultural norms, a look below the surface can reveal the diverse ways women struggle over the years to improve their own lives and those of their families.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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